February 14, 2022. Digitized books have become increasingly popular in recent years, and for university libraries and scholars, the first 18 months of the pandemic threw their value into sharp relief. As campuses across the country closed, many libraries began offering expanded access to digital versions of the print books in their collections as an emergency measure, driving ebook use to new heights and unexpectedly launching a large-scale experiment in online scholarship.
Libraries have long provided digital access to older books in the public domain and those published more recently with open access. But programs established during the pandemic, such as the HathiTrust Digital Library's Emergency Temporary Access Service, opened a new frontier by offering temporary access to digitized versions of in-copyright materials, as well.
Based on the University of California's preliminary assessment, the experiment was a resounding success with faculty and student users. However, as with many experiments, it has also raised a host of questions about long-term implementation, especially as user demand for digital materials continues to increase. Under the leadership of the UC Davis Library and the California Digital Library (CDL) and with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, UC has begun an investigation of key questions around the future of ebook lending, such as:
- What have we learned about the best uses for print versus digital books, and what are the implications for the future?
- How does digital book lending extend and strengthen the historical role of the academic library in ensuring long-term access to scholarship?
- What legal framework(s) and/or case law might support various long-term options for large-scale digital book lending, beyond the emergency context of the pandemic? Does a form that builds on controlled digital lending offer a scalable solution?
- What technologies and formats are required for a large multi-campus university system like UC to implement such a system at scale?
- What critical mass of digitized books is needed to create a viable, compelling resource for scholars? What content gaps might need to be filled via targeted digitization within UC's mass digitization efforts?
- How do authors, including those among UC's staff and faculty, perceive the ethical and legal issues involved?
- And importantly, as we look to the future, what transformative research opportunities might be enabled by broader access to digital books?
Rice Majors, the UC Davis Library's associate university librarian for scholarly resources and a member of the steering committee for the project, explains: "The University of California has tens of millions of books in its collections. As we explore what a shared digital lending system for the UC might entail, we want to future-proof what we create, leaving room for potential uses we cannot even imagine today. Having more books digitized and readily available to researchers will enable innovation, such as through new modalities of scholarship not yet envisioned."
The Mellon-funded project will be managed by Sandra McIntyre, a consultant who brings deep knowledge of digital libraries, access to digital scholarship, and the educational technology sector. She will work under the leadership of a steering committee of six senior leaders from the UC Davis Library and the California Digital Library, the UC system's central unit for providing shared digital library resources and services.
The project's findings will be presented in a white paper and are expected to lay the foundation for broader work in future years to develop a comprehensive ebook delivery system for the UC.